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Madame Curie Bioscience Database [Internet]. Austin (TX): Landes Bioscience; 2000-.

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CTLA-4 in Type 1 Diabetes Mellitus

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The current etiological classification defines type 1 diabetes as a chronic hyperglycemia due to a cellular mediated immune destruction of the insulin-secreting pancreatic beta-cells. This disease is characterized by the presence at the onset of antibodies against insular molecules (islet cell antibodies (ICA), anti-insulin (IAA), anti-glutamic acid decarboxylase (GADA) and anti-tyrosine phosphatase (IA-2) and by a susceptible genotype at the HLA class II DRB1 and DQB1 genes. There is no cure and diabetic subjects require lifetime daily multiple injections of insulin to maintain glucose homeostasis.

Type 1 diabetes occurs in both sexes, but a slight male excess has been found in some populations.1 Incidence data are available for children up to 14 years of age in 50 countries of the five continents and show a striking variation among populations and within the population of the same country. The age-adjusted incidence rates range from 0.1/100,000 per year in China and Venezuela to ˜37/100,000 per year in Sardinia and Finland.1

It is widely accepted that type 1 diabetes results from interaction of a polygenic trait with environmental risk factors. This hypothesis has received support from different observations. Approximately one-tenth of the cases occurs in families and identical twins (that share the same genome, except for mitochondrial DNA, post-zygotic and epigenetic DNA changes) are more often concordant for the disease than dizygotic twins (that share half genome) thus suggesting the existence of inherited factors.24 On the other hand, concordance is below 100% in identical twins indicating that a susceptible genome is not sufficient to develop the disease. Moreover, it is also likely that identical twins share more of their environment than non-identical twins. The contribution of genetic susceptibility has been underlined by assessment of the incidence of type 1 diabetes in children of migrants from high incidence to low incidence regions. Two studies have demonstrated that children of Sardinian heritage born and resident in Lazio and Lombardy (two Italian regions with incidence ˜8/100,000 per year) have the same fourfold higher incidence as the population of origin. Moreover, children born in continental Italy of mixed couples with one Sardinian partner have an intermediate rate between those of Sardinia and of continental Italy.5,6

It is known that the major genes responsible for approximately 40% of genetic susceptibility are within the HLA region on chromosome 6p21 (insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus 1, IDDM1). This region includes highly polymorphic genes in tight linkage disequilibrium that encode proteins processing and presenting antigens to T lymphocytes. Initially, by case-control studies, it was shown that HLA class I alleles were increased in type 1 diabetic subjects.7 Subsequently, the primary role of HLA class II loci has been assessed.8 Alleles associated with type 1 diabetes are different among populations and ethnic groups. Typically, most Caucasian type 1 diabetics have DRB1*03-DQB1*0201 and/or DRB1*04-DQB1*0302 haplotypes. Trans-racial comparison of disease associated alleles and haplotypes helps to dissect the complexity of HLA-diabetes association: a susceptible HLA genotype requires predisposing alleles at DRB1, DQB1 and DQA1 loci, there is a scale of allelic association from susceptibility through neutrality up to protection and the population frequencies of susceptible and protective haplotypes may explain the population-specific patterns of incidence and of HLA association.9,10 Moreover, other loci within classes II and III of HLA seem to increase type 1 diabetes risk.1114

The existence of non HLA-genes was suspected by genetic analysis of animal models of type 1 diabetes. The search was encouraged by technological advances, availability of a dense map of polymorphic genetic markers and of a large numbers of families with multiple affected siblings. Some whole genome linkage analyses have been conducted in the past decade that have led to the localization of several chromosome regions linked to type 1 diabetes.1518 Some researchers have instead adopted a more selective approach or have directly tested genes theoretically implicated in the pathogenesis of the disease. A list of loci so far mapped is reported in Table 1. In this chapter we will describe in detail the discovery of the IDDM12 (CTLA-4) locus. Results obtained in the different studies are not always overlapping and not every linkage or association has been independently replicated. The reasons for inconsistent results are discussed below. A likely explanation is the genetic heterogeneity of the disease: combinations of different genes may result in an identical phenotype. Efforts to identify the etiologic gene variations mapping in the non-HLA IDDM loci are currently ongoing.4345

Table 1. Loci and genes linked to or associated with type 1 diabetes.

Table 1

Loci and genes linked to or associated with type 1 diabetes.

Exposure to environmental agents as factors initiating or precipitating beta-cell destruction has also been considered. The average daily energy intake of food items of animal origin (especially meat and diary products)46 and the consumption in childhood47 or by the mother during pregnancy48 of foods with nitrosamine additives, that are toxic for beta-cells, are positively correlated with the disease incidence. Also the early introduction of cow's milk, due to short duration of breast feeding, increases the risk for childhood type 1 diabetes.49 The underlying hypothesis is that the bovine beta-casein, whose sequence differs from the human protein, may pass through the immature mucosa of the gut and trigger a cellular and humoral immune response cross-reacting with a beta-cell antigen.50

Viral infections (rubella, coxsackie, and cytomegalovirus), contracted during fetal life, have been associated with increased risk of type 1 diabetes.5153 The discovery of similarities in amino acid sequences of viral proteins and beta-cell components (insulin, glutamic acid decarboxilase and other unidentified proteins) has supported the hypothesis of molecular mimicry.54 A mechanism of direct cytotoxicity may also involved.

The Discovery of the CTLA-4 Association with Type 1 Diabetes

It all began in the early '90s when we joined Roberto Tosi at the CNR in Rome who was planning to perform an identical-by-descent linkage analysis of type 1 diabetes in Italian affected sib-pair families. We chose to study a dozen chromosome regions that either contained genes involved in autoimmune response or were orthologous to murine or rat genome regions where susceptibility loci to autoimmune diabetes had been mapped. One region was the long arm of human chromosome 2 that corresponds to murine chromosome 1, where a locus for periinsulitis in non-obese diabetic (NOD) mouse, named Idd5, had been reported.55,56

Initially, we tested microsatellite markers mapping in 2q12-q22 and in 2q33-35. The latter region gave evidence of increased allele sharing in our Italian sib-pair families and we presented these preliminary results in scientific meetings from 1994.5760 Detection of linkage indicates that a disease gene should lie in a rather extended region (several centiMorgans) around the positive markers. We were lucky because microsatellites linked in our data set included an (AT) repeat in the 3' untranslated (UTR) sequence of the CTLA-4 gene. CTLA-4 had been identified in 1987 by Brunet et al61 as a transcript of cytotoxic T cells and at the time of our observation its role in regulating T cell activation was still controversial. It was also known that CD28, another T cell co-stimulatory molecule structurally homologous to CTLA-4, mapped close to CTLA-4 on chromosome 2.62,63 Thus, it was clear to us that CTLA-4 and CD28 deserved to be considered type 1 diabetes candidate genes.

Following a suggestion by John A. Todd, we tested the CTLA-4 microsatellite for association in the presence of linkage with the disease by the transmission disequilibrium test (TDT). The second most frequent allele, that we named 104 mobility units (mu), showed increased transmission, albeit not significant, to diabetic offspring in Italian multiplex families (20 transmissions versus 10 non transmissions, p=0.07). We felt encouraged and undertook the collection of Italian “simplex” families (one diabetic child, his/her parents and a non-affected child, if available), a more abundant source suitable for TDT.

Searching the Genbank we found that a CTLA-4 sequence submission (accession number L15006) reported three “conflicts”, i.e., potential single base polymorphisms, at positions 49, 272 and 439. Only the A49G variation, that codes for a threonine to alanine change in the signal peptide, turned out to be a true allelic difference (frequency of G allele in Italian population is approximately 30%). Preliminary analysis on 104 Italian type 1 diabetes families showed that the G49 allele, that is in tight linkage disequilibrium (LD) with the 104 mu allele, was significantly more transmitted to affected children (p<0.025).64 We continued collecting and typing Italian families and established collaboration with foreign groups: 44 Spanish type 1 diabetic families were tested for the A49G single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP). The results (40 transmissions versus 18 non-transmissions to all affected siblings, p=0.004, 21 transmissions and 25 non-transmissions to non-affected children) replicated the data obtained in Italian families. In the meantime, an article came out that showed a significant increase of the second most frequent allele of the CTLA-4 microsatellite (the Authors named this allele 106 base-pairs (bp)) in Caucasian patients affected by Graves' disease.65 This independent observation strengthened the hypothesis that a gene controlling a step in an autoimmune process was in LD with CTLA-4, if not CTLA-4 itself.

In collaboration with Todd's group, the A49G SNP was typed in 284 UK, 180 US and 123 Sardinian type 1 diabetic families and in a panel of Chinese patients affected by Graves' disease and controls. TDT of G49 allele in diabetic families was not statistically significant, although a trend toward increased transmissions was observed in the US data set (177 transmissions versus 145 non-transmissions, p=0.074). Instead, the Chinese case-control study was significant and in agreement with Italian and Spanish data. We typed 83 additional Italian families and TDT of the G49 allele in the whole Italian family panel (n=187) was significant (114 transmissions and 75 non-transmissions to all affected children, p=0.004). To obtain a valid test of association, we analyzed transmissions to Italian and Spanish probands only (one affected child in multiplex families) and obtained significant data (112 transmissions versus 65 non-transmissions, p=0.0004). Importantly, no transmission distortion was observed to non-diabetic sibs. The overall TDT to affected siblings of the five family data sets was significant (p=0.002).

The Belgian Diabetes Registry, which is a large population-based collection of type 1 diabetic patients, was also analyzed. Belgian patients (n=483) had significantly higher frequencies of G allele, G phenotype and GG genotype compared to controls (n=529). The overall data (three out of six diabetic panels studied were significant and consistent) provided evidence for an association of the CTLA-4 region with type 1 diabetes and the locus was named IDDM12. Results of this collaborative effort were joined and published in 1996.66

Later on the UK, US, Italian and Sardinian family collections, previously typed for the A49G variation, plus 185 additional families, were also analyzed for the CTLA-4 microsatellite. The two most frequent alleles showed percentage of transmission significantly different from random expectation: alleles 262 and 280 (the latter corresponds to allele 104 mu or 106 bp) showed decreased and increased transmissions, respectively, to all diabetic children either in the overall data set (allele 262, p=0.009; allele 280, p=0.001) or in the UK and US families combined (allele 262, p=0.001; allele 280, p=0.02).31 These data indicate that the CTLA-4 microsatellite is a better disease risk marker than the A49G variation.

Genetic Studies on CTLA-4 and Human Type 1 Diabetes

Since our first observations, many papers testing the hypothesis of CTLA-4 association with different autoimmune diseases in diverse populations followed one another.67 To our knowledge, sixteen articles that studied the association with type 1 diabetes have been published up to the year 2000 (Tables 1 and 2). Alternate conclusions have been drawn. There are some explanations for inconsistent results among distinct populations and among different data sets from the same population.

Table 2. CTLA-4 association with type 1 diabetes: family studies.

Table 2

CTLA-4 association with type 1 diabetes: family studies.

First, the study should have enough power (that is probability) to detect association at a statistically significant level. Power depends on the relative risk and on the frequency in the general population of the factor tested and on the size of the sample studied (either families or case-controls). Type 1 diabetes genes, apart from HLA, are estimated to confer low risk (i.e., 1.5), thus for an allele frequency ranging between 10% to 50%, 700 to 300 patients and controls should be analyzed (for an 80% power and a significance level of 0.05). Studying data set of inappropriate size reduces the chance of detecting true small effects (false negative).

There may be also population specific factors such as pattern and level of LD between the marker allele tested and the disease-predisposing allele. Population isolates have a higher degree of LD than cosmopolitan populations.83

Finally, locus heterogeneity must be considered: a gene may account only for a fraction of the cases depending on genetic background and on environmental factors. In this respect, some researchers studied CTLA-4 association sub-grouping diabetic patients on the basis of genetic, immune and clinical features. Some conflicting results have been reported but these are probably due to the small number of cases included in the sub-classes and to non-stringent statistic thresholds (p values not corrected for number of comparisons performed). In the largest study of this type the Authors found no difference in the CTLA-4 G49 allele distribution with respect to age of disease onset, HLA-DR, -DQ and insulin genotypes and the presence of islet or thyrogastric autoantibodies.73

Role of CTLA-4 in Human Type 1 Diabetes

There is no direct proof that CTLA-4 is a diabetes susceptibility gene. CTLA-4 gene itself may be primarily involved in the disease pathogenesis if one or more of its polymorphisms determine an effect on the protein function that may be relevant to the disease process. Alternatively, it is possible that CTLA-4 is in LD with the etiologic variation residing somewhere in the region.

Genetic studies on CTLA-4 have focused on three polymorphisms, so far: a C-T SNP in position -318 from the ATG start codon84, the A49G in exon 1 and the dinucleotide repeat in the 3'-UTR. Recently, Marron et al69 described another SNP in CTLA-4 intron 1 (C/T in position -819 from exon 2-start site) that showed more significant association with type 1 diabetes than the A49G and the microsatellite.

The biological significance of these polymorphisms is not known. The C-318T variation does not affect any known consensus sequence in the regulatory region of the promoter.84

As far as the A49G variation is concerned, Kouki et al85 demonstrated that proliferative response of T lymphocytes is increased in the presence of soluble blocking anti-human CTLA-4 monoclonal antibody. The augmentation is significantly higher in individuals A/A homozygous compared with G/G subjects regardless of the affection status. This is the first report that shows that CTLA-4 effects can be modulated by its genotype, however the phenotype observed cannot be directly related to exon 1 variation due to its strong LD with the (AT)n polymorphism at 3'-UTR, the C/T SNP described by Marron et al69 and, possibly, with others yet unknown.

With regard to the microsatellite, it has been speculated that (AT)n length in 3'-UTR can affect mRNA stability, but this has not been proven for CTLA-4.

We and others84,86 have searched CTLA-4 exons and part of introns for additional polymorphisms: nothing has been found in coding regions. We have identified two new C-T SNPs in 5' sequence and in intron 1, respectively, but they did not show significant transmission distortion in 200 Italian diabetic families (unpublished).

Sequencing of cDNA from human and rodents T and B lymphocytes revealed a CTLA-4 alternate transcript that lacks the transmembrane domain87,88 and results in a soluble form (sCTLA-4) detectable in the sera. Oaks et al89 have also demonstrated that serum levels of sCTLA-4 are higher in patients with autoimmune thyroid diseases compared to healthy subjects. It is not clear whether this phenomenon is due to DNA differences or to an indirect effect related to the affection status.

Finally, it cannot be ruled out that additional polymorphisms map in flanking and intron sequences of CTLA-4 locus and that these, taken singly or in combination, could be the etiologic variation.

Genetic Studies in Animals

A great deal of information on CTLA-4 function and on its possible role in the pathogenesis of autoimmune diabetes comes from genetic and functional studies in mice.

Animal models of human disorders constitute a powerful tool for investigation of the mechanisms involved in complex diseases since confounders acting in research on human populations are not present in strains. Being inbred, the genetic background is homogeneous and fixed among generations and sibship. Also the environment, which probably plays an important role in the unfolding of human diseases, is controlled and homogeneous for laboratory animals. Moreover, information can be drawn by manipulating the genetic background of the animal and producing extreme phenotypic consequences.

Non-obese diabetic (NOD) mouse is a strain that spontaneously develops autoimmune diabetes with many similarities to the human disorder. The Ctla-4 gene possibly controls insulitis and diabetes in NOD mouse since it maps within the Idd5 diabetes susceptibility locus. Idd5 had been identified in genomic screens conducted on NOD mouse as a large (34 cM) region on proximal chromosome 1 (orthologous to human chromosome 2q) that was linked to insulitis.55,56 To identify the minimal region containing the susceptibility gene, Hill et al90 have recently developed some congenic strains by backcrossing NOD mice (diabetes prone) to a B10 (diabetes resistant) strain and selecting the progeny that has NOD genetic background except for the region of interest on chromosome 1 that is derived from the B10 resistant animals. NOD.B10 Idd5 mice have a lower frequency of diabetes than NOD animals. Additional congenic strains with an even shorter segment of the B10-derived chromosome 1 have then been generated. Comparing diabetes incidence among different strains it was possible to narrow the region(s) containing the gene(s) of resistance to the disease. They have determined that Idd5 is actually a two-gene locus. Idd5.1 is a 1.5 cM region that includes four genes: Casp8, Cflar, Cd28 and Ctla-4 and corresponds to IDDM12 region identified in humans. Idd5.2 contains Nramp1 and Il-8ra (interleukin-8 receptor a). No coding variations have been found between NOD and B10 sequences of Cflar, Cd28 and Ctla-4. A conservative Ala-Val substitution has been found in Casp8, but its role in disease has not been explored. Thus, similarly to what has been seen in humans, it is possible that the etiologic variation resides in non-translated sequences around these genes.

Functional Studies in Mice

The controversy concerning the role of Ctla-4 in the regulation of T cell activation has been resolved by generating Ctla-4 knock-out mice, that are mice in which both copies of the Ctla-4 genes have been disrupted by homologous recombination. These animals have an extensive accumulation of activated lymphocytes in several tissues and organs. Infiltrating cells express activation markers and exhibit high proliferation rates in response to stimuli or spontaneously thus implying that Ctla-4 acts as a negative regulator of T cells.91

The NOD model of autoimmune diabetes has been exploited to understand how and when Ctla-4 exert its immunoregulatory role.

Luhder et al92 demonstrated in a TCR transgenic model of autoimmune diabetes that blockade with anti-Ctla-4 monoclonal antibody (mAb) accelerated the development of diabetes. They also established that Ctla-4 does not act on naive cells, but in a narrow time window, when activated T cells migrate to the pancreatic islets and re-encounter the antigen for a second time.93 This is consistent with the observation that maximal Ctla-4 protein expression is seen 48–72 hours later T cell activation. A sub-population of CD4+ T lymphocytes, that is CD25+ and constitutively expresses Ctla-4, probably exerts the inhibitory role. This T cell subset is reduced in NOD mice compared to other mouse strains. Moreover, if NOD splenocytes depleted of CD4+ CD25+ Ctla-4+ T cells are transferred into NOD.SCID mice an increase in the frequency of diabetes is observed compared to animals that received total splenocytes.94 Interestingly, presence of CD4+ CD25+ Ctla-4+ cells requires the integrity of the CD28/B7 system. Regulatory T cells positive for CD25, CD4 and Ctla-4 suppressively control other T cells by two possible mechanisms: they may compete, through Ctla-4, with other T cells for the costimulatory signal on antigen presenting cells. Alternatively, regulatory T cells deliver to other T cells a negative signal of proliferation or activation.95


Much detailed information has been gained in the last few years on CTLA-4, and its function is compatible with a role in the pathogenesis of type 1 diabetes and other immune-mediated diseases. However, genetic data neither show nor rule out in a definite and conclusive manner that CTLA-4 and/or the flanking genes CD28 and ICOS are primarily responsible for the observed disease association. Sequencing of the murine and human CTLA-4 genes in a diabetes prone strain and in affected people has demonstrated that the extracellular binding domain and the cytoplasmic tail that delivers the signal are not modified in this disease, thus the explanation must be searched for elsewhere. Possibly, every SNP in the region has to be looked for and genetically tested. In tight conjunction, studies of functional genomics are needed to investigate the effect encoded by the sequence variations of the CTLA-4 locus that are found associated with the disease. Slight modifications of the transcribed or translated product are possibly involved and such evidence may be difficult to detect and discriminate from secondary effects. Thus very sensitive methods and artificial systems may be required to demonstrate a direct relationship between the genotype and the biological effect at the expression/protein level. Correlation of the protein phenotype with the disease outcome is a further step that should take into account the contribution of the other disease genes and of the environmental factors.


We are deeply grateful to Roberto Tosi. A special thank goes to John A. Todd, Lynn Pritchard and Francesco Cucca. We wish also to acknowledge the physicians of the IMDIAB group, Maria Teresa Martinez, Manuel Serrano-Rios, Frans Gorus, Bart Van der Auwera and Emanuele Bosi for sharing their samples and results and Richard H. Butler for revising this manuscript.


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